The theater of hustle and the hustle of theater: play, player, and played in Suzan-Lori Parks's Topdog/Underdog.
--The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965)
None of Suzan-Lori Parks's plays is more highly regarded than Topdog/Underdog (2001), for which Parks became, in 2002, the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Topdog features two characters, brothers named Lincoln and Booth, whose names prefigure the play's outcome and whose relationship drives its portrayal of "family wounds and healing." (1) Lincoln, the older brother, performs in a sideshow act where he impersonates his namesake, affording patrons the opportunity to play John Wilkes Booth, who was himself an actor, by reenacting the famous assassination at Ford's Theatre. One of Lincoln's regular customers adds a touch of philosophy to his part of the performance, whispering into Lincoln's fight ear just before he shoots him in the left. As the brothers recount this episode, they split one of the play's most resonant and evocative lines:
BOOTH. Whatd he say, that one time? "Yr only yrself--"
LINCOLN. "--when no ones watching," yeah. (34)
The line is fitting inasmuch as it is shared: the two brothers divide it just as they divide their time on stage, alternating between topdog and underdog, player and played. The line is also fitting inasmuch as it is borrowed, originating not with either brother but rather with a shadowy figure, Lincoln's "Best Customer" (33). The very idea of an African American Abraham Lincoln impersonator, moreover, is one that Parks borrows from herself: one of her earlier works, The America Play (1994), features a similar, though not identical, character. Thus one gleans the many borrowings in Parks's work and the many plays within her plays. (2)
While such metatheatrical twists and turns are a hallmark of Parks's experimental style, they run counter to the content of the brothers' shared line, which implies a private, autonomous identity that emerges only in solitude--a concept distinctly out o place on Parks's stage, where it seems that one can only be oneself precisely when others are watching. (3) In Topdog, as in her other works, Parks flaunts a concept of identity that is shared and borrowed, social and theatrical; identity is a role one performs publicly for an audience rather than a private essence one contains inside. The "Best Customer" implies, contrariwise, that identity is a matter more of authenticity than performativity, of signified ultimately trumping signifier. Such an understanding would corroborate the reception of Topdog as Parks's turn away from her signature postmodern metatheater to a more traditional naturalistic drama. However, if one suspects, as this essay suggests, that Lincoln's "Best Customer" is actually his brother, that it is Booth playing Booth to Lincoln's Lincoln, then the plays within Parks's play only proliferate in this line, whose performative utterance belies its denotative content. Perhaps even, or especially, that which appears most natural in Parks's play is a performance, or a hustle.
Topdog represents both an apex and a swerve in Parks's career, for just when it seemed that everyone was watching--the play not only landed Parks a Pulitzer, it also landed her on Broadway--Suzan-Lori Parks seemed not to be herself. (4) Parks's early work audaciously breaks with traditional dramatic structure in order to explore the performativity of identity and the theatricality of history. If indeed her experimental style is "an acquired taste" (Bigsby 311), that may be because it presents what George C. Wolfe, who has directed a number of Parks's plays, including Topdog/ Underdog, describes as a "not-easy-to-digest vision of American history, black culture, the family" (qtd. in Als 79). Topdog, however, struck reviewers as more palatable, manifesting certain naturalistic features more reminiscent of a play such as A Raisin in the Sun than of some of Parks's earlier works. Set in a seedy boarding house room, Topdog explores the plight of African American males in conditions of family dysfunction, urban poverty, and social oppression. Whether they welcomed it or not, critics consistently remarked on Parks's newfound "naturalism," referring primarily to the Dlav's linear action and gritty realism, especially in its dialogue, but also gesturing toward its fatalistic overtones. (5) Unlike A Raisin in the Sun, however, Topdog/ Underdog denies its audience a conciliatory conclusion. Parks's exploration of naturalistic form is of a piece with what she has previously described as her "explosion" of that form:
The naturalism of, say, Lorraine Hansberry is beautiful and should not be dismissed simply because it's naturalism. We should understand that realism, like other movements in other artforms, is a specific response to a certain historical climate. I don't explode the form because I find traditional plays "boring"--I don't really. It's just that those structures never could accommodate the figures which take up residence inside me. ("from 'Elements of Style'" 8)
It is important to note that Parks does not here dismiss realist or naturalist aesthetics; indeed, the dramatic tension of Topdog/Underdog derives from the same type of energy that simmers throughout and threatens to boil over in A Raisin in the Sun. (6) Furthermore, Parks's description of her "explosion" of naturalistic form recalls Hansberry's own act of borrowing, in the title and epigraph of A Raisin in the Sun, from Langston Hughes's "Harlem," which concludes with the line: "Or does it explode?" (268; emphasis in original). (7) However, if in the end Hansberry's naturalistic dramatic form, which works largely within established dramatic conventions, contains the energy of the play, Parks's metatheater, by consciously commenting upon and "exploding" such conventions, releases it. Her combination of naturalistic and metatheatrical modes of representation disrupts binary logics by conjuring, responding to, and remaking particular historical climates.
Characterizations of Topdog as an exclusively naturalistic play, therefore, must downplay its patently and self-consciously metatheatrical elements, focusing more on the content of the lines delivered than on the performative aspects of their utterance. Parks, however, makes no such distinction, as she explains in describing her minimal use of parenthetical stage directions: "How the line should be delivered is contained in the line itself" ("from 'Elements of Style'" 15-16; emphasis in original). For Parks, this performative aspect of language contains a metatheatrical component: "the most exciting thing about theater is that it's about theater" (Jiggetts 313). Topdog, this essay contends, is no exception. As Verna Foster notes: "The play within its naturalistic terms is as metatheatrical as its more overtly experimental predecessor," The America Play (25). (8) The achievement of Topdog/Underdog is not to turn away from metatheatrical elements but rather to deploy naturalistic tactics in the service of what Italo Calvino calls a "strategy of effects." Calvino describes "metatheatrical and metaliterary processes," such as the play within a play, as standing in opposition "to the claim made by realism to lead the reader or spectator to forget that what he has before his eyes is an operation performed by means of language, a fiction worked out with an eye toward a strategy of effects." (9) In Topdog, Parks's strategy of effects centers on the trope of the hustle.
Parks stages a drama that achieves its effects by prompting the audience to look for something hidden only to distract them from, and then ultimately remind them of, what lies in plain sight. The play, that is to say, performs the hustle it represents, instantiating Parks's belief "that content determines form and form determines content" ("from 'Elements of Style'" 7). Three different hustles operate throughout Topdog. The savvy Lincoln cons his impetuous younger brother, who makes for the perfect mark. Lincoln asserts his topdog status by playing on his brother's desire to unseat him. Booth, however, may be a bit too perfect in the role of chump. Although critics have overlooked the possibility, a second look at the play sees Booth's gullibility as part of his own play to con Lincoln into throwing the cards. Booth hustles the hustler by playing the gull. Finally, Parks enacts the same hustle on her audience, which functions both as a knowing accomplice and as an unwitting mark. For there to be drama in a play where a character named Booth ultimately shoots and kills a character named Lincoln, the audience must simultaneously keep in mind and forget that the outcome is foreordained, must recognize the ending as both inevitable and yet somehow not determined. The audience, in other words, must identify the gun Booth pulls on Lincoln in the opening scene as Chekhov's, even as it hopes against hope that it will not be fired, that it will not explode. The gun, as with many other elements in the play, operates within both internal and external, naturalistic and metatheatrical, dramatic logics: its initial appearance and subsequent firing are crucial to the realistic coherence of the play even as its presence functions as a metatheatrical comment on the conventions of dramatic coherence and realism. Parks stages a play in which the audience witnesses the "natural" outcome of the dramatic action, only then to realize that it knew what the outcome would be all along, thus making the ending appear "contrived." As with three-card monte, the audience derives pleasure from observing a performance whose outcome is known in advance.
At this final level of the hustle, Parks's naturalistic tactics work to advance rather than inhibit her metatheatrical strategy. For Calvino, realism is a hustle, an attempt to conceal from the reader or spectator "an operation performed by means of language" (109). Parks demonstrates in plain sight how such operations achieve their effects--her sleight of hand is not to distract her audience or make it forget, but to remind it of what it's been looking at, and of what it has known, all along: Booth kills Lincoln. In this manner, Topdog/Underdog deploys naturalistic tactics to advance a metatheatrical "strategy of effects" that pursues a "double agenda" (Schmidt 173): to write plays that both experiment with dramatic form and perform African American and American history.
Topdog initially and most obviously broaches questions of identity, performativity, and history with the names of its characters, a legacy of their long-departed father's sense of humor: "It was his idea of a joke" (24). The historical weight of the names lends them an archetypal significance in the play, determining the audience's expectations for dramatic closure and thereby qualifying from the outset any claims for straightforward naturalism. In addition, the names, along with Lincoln's job as a Lincoln impersonator, allow Parks to introduce the theme of the fake, the phony, or the impostor. "Folks come in kill phony Honest Abe with the phony pistol" (33), Lincoln tells his brother. The room is kept dark, he further explains, to maintain "thuh illusion of thuh whole thing" (49), but it is equally important that it not look "too real" (52). Illusions and impostors show up again and again in the play, as in Booth's description of the ring he has "boosted" for his purported girlfriend Grace: "I got her this ring today. Diamond. Well, diamond-esque, but it looks just as good as the real thing" (10).
Parks's characters often struggle to tell the difference between the legit and the counterfeit. At the beginning of Betting on the Dust Commander (1990), for example, Mare claims that plastic flowers are as good as, and even better than, the real thing; they are more durable and effectively indistinguishable: "Expensive plastics got the real look to em, Lucius. Expensive plastics got uh smell. Expensive plastics will last a lifetime but nobodyll notice, Lucius. Nobody knows" (75). Imitation engagement rings and fake wedding flowers: the conventional tokens of commitment and celebration are often counterfeit in Parks's plays. That it is impossible to "know" the difference between the imitation and the genuine article is a condition both of conflict and of possibility in her work.
Indeed, such is the stuff of Parks's 2003 novel Getting Mother's Body, where Billy Beede dismisses rumors that her mother "went into the ground with gold in her pockets" by claiming that whatever "jewels she had was fake" (9). It is Billy's own promised wedding ring that never materializes, however, as her lover himself proves to be a fake: when she arrives at his house to marry him, she is met by his wife. Billy's efforts to uncover the truth about her mother--and to discover whether the imagined ring is real or merely "diamond-looking" (256)--set in motion a chain of events that her Uncle Roosevelt describes in language reminiscent of Topdog's many hustles: "I'm driving a truck pretending it belongs to me and I pretended to be a Driver who pretended to lose a ring with fake rubies so we could get some money that didn't belong to us so we could get a treasure that does" (223). The novel's conceit of "inheriting" a buried treasure reprises Topdog's thematic material, focusing like its predecessor on whom and what belongs to whom, as well as the pretenses and power plays involved in such claims.
If Getting Mother's Body is Topdog's successor, The America Play is in more than one sense its precursor. It likewise features much that is "false" (163) or "virtual" (164), including a protagonist who is "uh lookuhlike" (179), "uh faker" (180), and a "faux-father" (184). That play creates "uncertainty" (166) about the difference between the real thing and "an exact replica" (174). "I know me uh faker when I see one" (180), says Lucy, who was married to one. At other times, though, she's not as certain: "I need tuh know thuh real thing from thuh echo. Thuh truth from thuh hearsay" (175). Such knowledge never comes cheaply in a Parks production.
Determining the criterion by which one distinguishes "thuh real thing" from "thuh echo" is a problem that Topdog represents in multiple guises. Lincoln struggles to maintain the distinction between something that is "as good as the real thing," such as the ring that Booth boosts, and the genuine article. In particular, he insists that his job is "honest work," not a "hustle," and he adamantly insists upon the difference between the two. Lincoln is a reformed cardsharp, a onetime expert at the three-card monte scam. After the death of his longtime friend and shill Lonny, he forswears the cards and takes up his current job. Booth aspires to "throw the cards" himself he even dubs himself "3-Card," a significant attempt at self-naming--and persistently works to persuade Lincoln to teach him. Lincoln initially resists the temptations of this fraternal Mephistopheles:
LINCOLN. I cant be hustling no more, bro.
BOOTH. What you do all day aim no hustle?
LINCOLN. Its honest work.
BOOTH. Dressing up like some crackerass white man, some dead president and letting people shoot at you sounds like a hustle to me.
LINCOLN. People know the real deal. When people know the real deal it aint a hustle.
BOOTH. We do the card game people will know the real deal. Sometimes we will win sometimes they will win. They fast they win, we faster we win.
LINCOLN. I aint going back to that, bro. I aint going back.
BOOTH. You play Honest Abe. You aint going back but you going all the way back. Back to way back then when folks was slaves and shit. (22)
Lincoln's identity requires that he distinguish between "honest work" and a "hustle," a difference that boils down to whether his customers know "the real deal," which he claims they do. Booth inverts the referents, however, claiming that Lincoln's current work more closely resembles a hustle--one that recalls "when folks was slaves and shit"--while maintaining the illusion that in three-card monte the players "know the real deal." Booth's description of Lincoln's work thus doubles as an accusation: "You play Honest Abe." Lincoln may insist that his work is "honest," but Booth knows he only "plays" at being honest, a play which, from the younger brother's perspective, is no less a hustle than three-card monte. Lincoln does, after all, take a child's money in exchange for Honest Abe's autograph (12). His "play" thus remains complicit with and perpetuates a history of exploitation and oppression.
Lincoln's anxiety concerning his occupation is a symptom of his uncertainty concerning his identity, whether he is the real deal or whether he is, or has always been, an impostor. Booth finds Lincoln's current work slavish, an impression exacerbated by the fact that Lincoln performs in whiteface. Booth in effect accuses Lincoln of dishonesty: his personal identity is inseparable from his racial identity, but Lincoln "makes up" an identity that depends on concealing his race and, by extension, whitewashing African American history. For Lincoln, however, his "real" job testifies to something more:
LINCOLN. I dont gotta spend my whole life hustling. Theres more to Link than that. More to me than some cheap hustle. More to life than cheating some idiot out of his paycheck or his life savings. (55)
Locating and naming that surplus value, that "something more," is Lincoln's constant struggle. After Booth steals two new suits, he claims that the clothes bring out Lincoln's former swagger:
BOOTH. You look like the real you. Most of the time you walking around all bedraggled\ and shit. You look good. Like you used to look back in thuh day. (30)
As is clear in this passage, and as Jennifer Larson details at length, clothing assumes considerable thematic significance in the play. The "real" Lincoln, Booth implies, is the cardsharp who dresses sharply, not the man who wears whiteface make-up and period costumes. The new clothes cause Lincoln to reflect on the relationship between exterior appearance and interior identity, particularly in terms of his job as a Lincoln impersonator:
LINCOLN. They say the clothes make the man. All day long I wear that getup. But that dont make me who I am. Old black coat not even real old just fake old. Its got worn spots on the elbows, little raggedy places thatll break through into holes before the winters out. Shiny strips around the cuffs and the collar. Dust from the cap guns on the left shoulder where they shoot him, where they shoot me I should say but I never feel like they shooting me.... Fake beard. Top hat. Dont make me into no Lincoln. I was Lincoln on my own before any of that. (29-30)
As with the brothers' shared line discussed at the beginning of this essay, two logics emerge in this passage: one "naturalistic" and the other "metatheatrical," one constative and the other performative. In terms of the former, Lincoln asserts an autonomous identity, one that he possesses "on his own" and "before any of that," before, that is to say, anyone was watching. However, his attempts to refer to that private, pre-existing self--what Booth refers to as the "real" Lincoln--are troubled by the threat of performativity, his claim to an authentic identity undercut by the appearance of simulacra. Lincoln's customers, he relates, use a cap gun to shoot "him," a slippery pronoun whose "antecedent" Lincoln is quick to try to pin down: "him," the historical Abraham Lincoln rather than "me," the actual Lincoln: "where they shoot him, where they shoot me I should say but I never feel like they shooting me." Moreover, the clothes the "real" Lincoln wears to portray the "historical" Lincoln are "not even real old just fake old." Yet the fake old clothes will soon have real new holes. Lincoln works hard to assert a level of authenticity underneath the layers of posturing and artificiality. The Lincoln outfit that he wears doesn't "make" him into "no Lincoln"; he is Lincoln, but he's Lincoln "on his own." He overlooks the fact that his name takes its meaning, or gets its punch, from a history that precedes him, that comes "before any of that." The play consistently questions any claim to an autonomous, private identity: no Lincoln without Booth, no Lincoln without Abraham Lincoln, no forefathers without faux-fathers.
And no topdog without an underdog. The problem of deciding between the real deal and the hustle, the genuine article and the counterfeit, the naturalistic and the metatheatrical, resolves itself into the question of who is the topdog and who is the underdog. Throughout the play, the two characters alternate between the two titular roles. "They switch constantly," Parks has stated (qtd. in Shewey 4). While the cast list describes Lincoln as "the topdog" and Booth as "the underdog," roles which correspond to Lincoln's status as the older brother and family breadwinner, Parks wastes no time in complicating these assignments. Lincoln pays the rent, for example, but the room "belongs" to Booth:
BOOTH. Its my place. You dont got a place. Cookie, she threw you out. And you cant seem to get another woman. Yr lucky I let you stay.
LINCOLN. Every Friday you say mi casa es su casa.
BOOTH. Every Friday you come home with yr paycheck. Today is Thursday and I tell you brother, its a long way from Friday to Friday. All kinds of things can happen. All kinds of bad feelings can surface and erupt while yr little brother waits for you to bring in yr share. (Rest)
I got my Thursday head on, Link. Go get the food. (15)
Although Booth willingly assumes the role of "little brother," he also clearly calls the shots, insisting that Lincoln pay the rent and buy the food. Lincoln acquiesces after only token resistance. As he did when he worked as a con artist, Lincoln makes the money, which in this play is a necessary but insufficient condition for topdog status.
The fact that Lincoln "cant seem to get another woman" is also a factor. Booth consistently equates sexual virility and a particular construction of black masculinity with being the topdog. As Myka Tucker-Abramson and Jason Bush discuss, the play articulates power relations through the overlapping discourses of race, sex, and gender. After Lincoln reveals his knowledge of his brother's hidden pornography, for example, Booth responds: "You a limp dick jealous whiteface motherfucker whose wife dumped him cause he couldnt get it up and she told me so. Came crawling to me cause she needed a man" (45). The play provides ample reason to question Booth's reliability, but it also suggests that he did in fact sleep with his brother's then-wife, Cookie. Booth positions himself as the topdog to Lincoln's underdog by equating his brother's willingness to perform in whiteface with his inability to perform in bed. Booth further couples sexual prowess and topdog status when he tells Lincoln that he and his (real or imagined) girlfriend Grace have sex "Dogstyle.... In front of a mirror" (41). In all of his fantasies, Booth is literally the topdog.
The play consistently advances and then retracts criteria that would distinguish topdog from underdog. "First thing you learn is what is," Lincoln tells Booth as he begins to teach him to throw the cards, "Next thing you learn is what aint. You dont know what is you dont know what aint, you dont know shit" (73). The audience, however, can never be sure what's the real deal and what's a hustle. To understand the hustle of the play as a whole, it is crucial to recognize the ways in which each brother hustles the other.
For all Lincoln's apparent earnestness and anxiety concerning his authentic identity, his "real self," he is never far removed from his role as a hustler. In the first half of the play, Parks gives a few hints, at times only in the sparse stage directions, that things may not be entirely as they appear, as when the brothers try on their new suits, which Booth has stolen:
LINCOLN. I think thuh tie you gave me'll go better with what you got on.
LINCOLN. Grace likes bright colors dont she? My ties bright, yrs is too subdued.
BOOTH. Yeah. Gimmie yr tie.
LINCOLN. You gonna take back a gift?
BOOTH. I stole the damn thing didnt I? Gimmie yrs! I'll give you mines. They switch neckties. Booth is pleased. Lincoln is more pleased. (30-31)
Lincoln represents self-interest as altruism, orchestrating the exchange so that Booth thinks he comes out ahead. Booth's desire to be flashy plays right into Lincoln's more "subdued," and ultimately more effective, approach. Wearing a suit might help bring out the "real" Lincoln, then, but not because it brings him closer to some sort of authentic identity; it instead allows him to take off one identity and to put on another. Or rather, the exchange reveals the limited explanatory value of distinctions, such as authentic versus performative, for interpreting Parks's work. As Jon Dietrick notes, Lincoln's character "problematizes distinctions between two ways of thinking about identity and about race: as 'essential' or as 'performed' " (57).
This episode recalls a previous one in which Lincoln comes home with takeout. Lincoln initially gives Booth the meat and keeps "the skrimps" for himself. After Booth objects, Lincoln agrees to trade him: "This morning when I left you said you wanted the meat.... Here man, take the skrimps. No sweat" (16). Parks writes the dialogue in such a way that, upon a first reading, the exchange might seem no more than a patient older brother humoring his impulsive younger brother, or even the submissive Lincoln manifesting the same qualities that led him to get the food in the first place. After the exchange of neckties, however, this swap might not appear so simple and Lincoln not so complacent.
In the second half of the play, Lincoln's hustling becomes more explicit. He continues to take advantage of Booth's desire for his older brother to throw the cards by insisting upon, or feigning, his steadfastness in avoiding them. Lincoln is so confident in his hustle, and so convinced of his younger brother's gullibility, that he in effect telegraphs his strategy. After Lincoln loses his job--he's replaced by a wax dummy, an impostor of an impostor he finally agrees to teach Booth the ins and outs of the three-card monte scam, which begins with the dealer feigning reluctance to engage the onlookers: "He acts like he dont wanna play. He holds back and thuh crowd ... all goad him on and push him to throw his cards, although of course the Dealer has been wanting to throw his cards all along. Only he dont never show it" (74). After giving away the game, Lincoln treats Booth as the dealer does the mark; "Dealer dont wanna play," he tells Booth, who immediately objects: "Come on you promised!" (74)--a promise that enjoys the same status as plastic flowers or diamond-esque rings. Booth continues to plead. "Im gone" (95), Lincoln responds, and later says, "I dont want to play" (101). When Lincoln does finally play, then, he naturally outsmarts his more enthusiastic but less practiced younger brother, who has been set up for just such a fall. Lincoln's pretence of reluctance was only part of his act, which claims Booth as its next, and ultimately its last, victim.
Booth's downfall is, or appears to be, his failure to distinguish the real from the "lookuhlike." When Lincoln finally agrees to throw the cards, he initially allows Booth to choose the correct card, which works to inflate Booth's already inflated ego:
LINCOLN. You seem pretty good, bro.
BOOTH. You gotta do it for real, man.
LINCOLN. I am doing it for real. And yr getting good.
BOOTH. I dunno. It didnt feel real. Kinda felt--well it didnt feel real. (97)
Booth fails to understand that the practice round is actually part of the larger process, and in that sense just as "real" as any other stage. For him, it's not the real deal until there's money on the line. He persuades Lincoln to match his "inheritance," a parting gift from his mother, $500 in a stocking or at least that's what he believes is inside of it--that he has saved all these years. This time, though, Lincoln does not allow Booth to pick correctly:
LINCOLN. But you was in such a hurry, to learn thuh last move that you didnt bother learning thuh first one.... Cause its thuh first move that separates thuh Player from thuh Played. And thuh first move is to know that there aint no winning. Taadaaa! It may look like you got a chance but the only time you pick right is when thuh man lets you. And when its thuh real deal, when its thuh real fucking deal, bro, and thuh moneys on thuh line, thats when thuh man wont want you picking right. He will want you picking wrong so he will make you pick wrong.... Thought you was uh Player. But I played you, bro. (106-07)
Booth fails to realize that the hustle is an elaborately constructed piece of theater, with a director calling the shots, a puppet-master pulling the strings. The first move, the one that "separates thuh Player from thuh Played," is to recognize the illusion for what it is--a play within a play--and thus to understand that "there aint no winning." Because Lincoln realizes it, he's the topdog, reversing the biblical roles of Jacob and Esau, by cheating his younger brother out of his inheritance.
There is one major obstacle, however, to maintaining this interpretation of the play: at the end of the day, it is Booth who holds the money and the gun and Lincoln who lies dead on the stage; it is not Jacob and Esau that provide the primary point of reference, but Cain and Abel. If Lincoln hustles Booth, then it backfires. "Who thuh man now, huh?" Booth yells at his brother after confessing that he has killed Grace, and with her, the play suggests, all hope for redemption. Just before he kills Lincoln, he acknowledges and breaks with the role he has been playing all along: "Think you can take me like Im just some chump" (109).
Critics who do not allow that there is more to Booth than meets the eye--and almost all of them do not--tend to find his character unrealistically gullible, and as a result, a liability to the play's purported realism. Dietrick's otherwise perceptive treatment of the play's "complex model of perception" (71) fails to perceive Booth as anything other than what he appears: "Booth's naivete about the game of monte is of a piece with his refusal to recognize any distinction between 'business' relationships and 'family' relationships" (62). Carolyn Casey Craig's largely dismissive treatment of the play is especially dismissive of Parks's handling of Booth's character: "How could the supremely street-smart Booth, brother of a big-time hustler who was himself once part of the act, not know that 'the only time you pick the right card is when the man lets you?'" (277). Craig does not entertain the possibility, suggested in part by the very reasons she lays out, that Booth in fact does know more than he lets on. Jason Bush's discussion of Booth's "submissive 'feminine' role in a patriarchal framework," does not question the initial identification of Booth as "underdog" or his role as "neophyte hustler" (79). While Booth no doubt occupies various subordinate positions at different points throughout the play, these critics deny his character any agency or intentionality, any strategy, in assuming those positions. His hustle, however, might be precisely that: to avoid the appearance of any strategy.
Booth's desire is clear: he wants his brother to throw the cards. However, given the parameters of the play, and assuming for the moment that they are in fact "realistic," Booth cannot simply ask Lincoln to return to his old ways. Lincoln has forsaken the hustle, not simply, or even primarily, out of a desire to go straight, but rather out of an instinct for self-preservation:
LINCOLN. One day I was throwing the cards. Next day Lonny died. Somebody shot him. I knew I was next, so I quit. I saved my life. (35)
For Lincoln, the stakes of returning to his old ways are clear; for Booth, therefore, the task of convincing him is daunting. What Booth can anticipate, however, and what he thus can incorporate into his own hustle, is Lincoln's desire to be a topdog, both in the sense of being the big brother and in that of being a hustler.
Once one recognizes Booth himself to be a player in the game, his character immediately gains more depth, such that a seemingly simple stage direction, for example, becomes rather complex. After Lincoln allows Booth to choose the winning card for the first time, which, as we have seen, is part of the older brother's hustle of the younger, Parks writes: "Booth struts around gloating like a rooster. Lincoln is mildly crestfallen" (77). Lincoln's reaction can be read in two ways. On the one hand, to appear crestfallen is part of his role as hustler: Lincoln allows Booth to win, but cannot let on that he did so. On the other hand, to appear crestfallen is also part of his role as big brother. For their practice round, Lincoln has assigned Booth the role of "Sideman," the crewmember who demonstrates to the mark how easy it is to pick the right card. Thus the whole point of the charade was for Booth to choose correctly, which he fails to grasp. Booth's histrionics indicate he hasn't learned the difference between "what is" and "what aint," and Lincoln is genuinely disappointed by his younger brother's obtuseness. The stage direction, like so many other lines in the play, works equally well in a naturalistic or a metatheatrical interpretation.
Booth, however, might be trying to elicit precisely this response, no matter how one reads it. While his gloating might simply be evidence of his ignorance, the reaction is extreme enough to raise other suspicions. Is Booth hustling the hustler? The overall structure of the play suggests as much. The curtain rises with Booth on stage by himself, teaching himself how to throw the cards like his older brother, but with little success: "His moves and accompanying patter are, for the most part, studied and awkward" (7). Although he practices throughout the play, his later performance is "worse than when he threw the cards at the top of the play" (80). How is it that Booth gets worse the more he practices? It may be true, as Dietrick suggests, that "Booth lacks Lincoln's innate skill," but it might also take a particular kind of skill to get worse the more one practices. Booth may have learned more from his brother than the audience realizes, shrewdly assuming that as long as he is not perceived as a rival or a threat, as long as he is an easy mark, he can simultaneously appeal to his brother's dual instincts as mentor and hustler, breadwinner and con artist. The second level of the hustle, then, relies on the first: knowing that Lincoln needs Booth to play the rookie for Lincoln's hustle to work, Booth willingly takes on that role and incorporates it into his own hustle.
Just as when Booth willingly embraces the role of "little brother" in order to insist that Lincoln pay the rent to stay in Booth's place, other points in the play similarly disrupt the equation between big brother and topdog. Consider the brothers' mother's parting words to Booth, or at least Booth's version of those words:
BOOTH. She told me to look out for you. I told her I was the little brother and the big brother should look out after the little brother. She just said it again. That I should look out for you. (21)
In this passage Booth characterizes himself as simultaneously little brother and topdog, a much more complex role than that of the straightforward chump or tagalong kid.
Attributing more complexity to Booth's character allows further interpretive possibilities to arise. Recall, for example, the line that Lincoln and Booth split:
BOOTH. Whatd he say, that one time? "Yr only yrself--"
LINCOLN. "--when no ones watching," yeah. (34)
The fact that Booth, not Lincoln, begins reciting the line, which presumably he was not present to hear, can be attributed to the fact that he has heard Lincoln tell the story before. If there's more to Booth than we initially allow, however, we might suspect that Booth can instigate the recitation of the line because it in fact originates with him. With this possibility in mind, Booth's question to Lincoln about whether or not the "Best Customer" is a "brother," which immediately follows their joint recitation of the customer's line, takes on multiple meanings:
BOOTH. Thats deep shit.
Hes a brother, right?
LINCOLN. I think so.
BOOTH. He know yr a brother?
LINCOLN. I dunno.
BOOTH. Hes a deep black brother.
LINCOLN. Yeah. He makes the day interesting. (34-35)
Booth displays a considerable knowledge of, and interest in, Lincoln's customer, who is perhaps not only a "brother," but literally his brother. Such speculations further heighten the sense of irony that attends Lincoln's question to Booth near the climax of the play: "I know we brothers, but is we really brothers, you know, blood brothers or not, you and me" (103). Lincoln's question bespeaks a concern that authentic identity remains inaccessible beneath the layers of the hustle and the plays within the plays. Thus his anxiety concerning his personal identity, whether or not he can ever be Lincoln "on his own," extends to his familial relationships: he and Booth may act like brothers, but perhaps it is only an act. A few lines before Lincoln asks Booth if they're really brothers, Booth recounts their mother's infidelities, his knowledge of which leads her to pay him off: "She musta known I was gonna walk in on her this time cause she had my payoff--my inheritance--she had it all ready for me. 500 dollars in a nylon stocking" (100-01). Booth then places that nylon stocking--his inheritance/bribe on the card table, the bet that will finally make the game real. And yet, neither the brothers nor the spectators are ever quite sure if there actually is money in the stocking, for Booth has never untied the knot that secures his inheritance and binds him to his mother. Like the gold in the ground in Getting Mother's Body, the money in the stocking in Topdog/Underdog either promises to redeem the beliefs and actions of the characters or threatens to undercut them, just as the play's metatheatrical logic threatens to destabilize its naturalistic values, economic and ethical.
Thus the knot that secures Booth's inheritance, and the knot that Lincoln threatens to cut after hustling his brother, also represents the play's multiple lines of determination, where blood figures as a genetic inheritance, money a literal one, and where both blood and money testify to the reality of something as well as its potential for violence. If Lincoln's best customer "makes the day interesting," casting Booth in that role renders him "a deep black brother" in multiple senses. Parks suggests that depth at multiple points in the play. To have Booth play "Booth" and shoot Lincoln in the arcade further recreates American history and anticipates dramatic closure. Again and again, over and over, Booth shoots Lincoln, as he says he will at the beginning of the play--"You pull that one more time I'll shoot you" (9)--and as he "practices" with Lincoln in the middle of the play, nominally in an effort to improve his older brother's job performance and thus prevent his replacement by a dummy:
BOOTH. Hold yr head or something, where I shotcha. Good. And look at me! I am the assassin! I am Booth!! Come on man this is life and death! Go all out! Lincoln goes all out.
BOOTH. Cool, man thats cool. Thats enough.
LINCOLN. What do ya think?
BOOTH. I dunno, man. Something about it. I dunno. It was looking too real or something.
LINCOLN. Goddamn you! They dont want it looking too real. I'd scare the customers. Then I'd be out for sure. Yr trying to get me fired.
BOOTH. Im trying to help. Cross my heart.
LINCOLN.... You trying to get me fired. (52)
In making his performance look "too real," Lincoln risks getting fired, which is exactly what Booth has in mind. He supplies his own motive for wanting Lincoln to lose his job: "Iffen you was tuh get fired, then, well--then you and me could--hustle the cards together" (53). His promise that he's trying to help, not to get Lincoln fired, is analogous to Lincoln's claim that he "dont wanna play." It is, in other words, part of the hustle. Booth's gesture of crossing his heart is thus a symbolic promise that is as reliable as the "diamond-esque" ring that he steals for Grace. The stakes of this hustle are high. Lincoln realizes that "getting fired" from one job increases the odds of a gun "getting fired" in another.
At the same time, the possibility of genuine brotherly love emerges as well. Just as Lincoln's "crestfallen" look can be equally attributed to either his role as hustler or brother, so too the hint of desperation in Booth's performance--"this is life and death!" can bespeak his genuine concern for Lincoln. In effect, he warns his older brother: "I am Booth!!" In one sense, of course, the line is literally true, but it also anticipates the end of the play. This "performance" ends the fourth scene at roughly the midpoint of the play, and concludes with Lincoln falling asleep and Booth covering him with a blanket: a dress rehearsal for the final scene's murder. As opposed to Lincoln, who attempts to distinguish himself from his historical predecessor and namesake, Booth attempts to collapse the distinction: "I am Booth" serves to announce his role in the play, as well as in the play within the play. Thus, if Booth's earlier line, "You play honest Abe," doubles as description and accusation, this line, "I am Booth," doubles as description and warning, one which Lincoln fails to heed. In this collapse between constative and performative, one sees the complexity of Parks's play emerge in its refusal to reduce to either exclusively naturalistic or metatheatrical readings.
Topdog/Underdog thus layers one hustle on top of another. Booth's doubled self-description and warning to Lincoln--"I am Booth!!"--serves also as Parks's reminder to the audience that we know how this play must end; the line is a hinge between Booth's hustle of Lincoln and the play's hustle of its audience. Despite the predetermined outcome, the play holds out a possibility that the brothers will overcome their fates. For Booth, the chance to team with his brother becomes the basis for a familial tie, or "link," that was lost when their parents abandoned them:
BOOTH. I didnt mind them leaving cause you was there. Thats why Im hooked on us working together. If we could work together it would be like old times.... It was you and me against thuh world, Link. It could be like that again. (70)
But in the end, it cannot be like that. Parks herself holds out such a promise in the play's preface: "This is a play about family wounds and healing." The healing never occurs, just as the brothers await their "rendezvous with Grace" (36), which never arrives. Grace's perpetually deferred arrival her and its implied death in the final lines--separates Parks's naturalism from Hansberry's.
In initially conjuring and ultimately dashing hope for healing and overcoming, the play joins its hitherto competing logics, for from either perspective--naturalistic or metatheatrical--the play must end as it does, as we always knew it would: Booth kills Lincoln. On the one hand, the ending completes a naturalistic logic. Two brothers abandoned by their parents and left to fend for themselves ultimately succumb to the societal forces pressing against them. Lincoln goes back to throwing the cards after losing his job, and it is, as he knows it will be, the end of him. On the other hand, the ending completes a metatheatrical logic. Parks has made it clear from the beginning that we are about to take part in a hustle--"Place: here. Time: now" (2)--which is, after all, what the theater's patrons pay to do. When the curtain rises on Booth throwing the cards, it is the audience who sits on the other side of the table. "Welcome to the family," the preface concludes. To be included in this family is to be invited to throw the cards at the risk of being played, for in this play "brotherly love and hatred" are, Ben Brantley notes, "translated into the terms of men who have known betrayal since their youth, when their parents walked out on them, and who will never be able entirely to trust anyone, including (and especially) each other. Implicit in their relationship is the idea that to live is to con" ("Not to Worry" E1). If to live is to con, then a naturalistic play is one that represents life as a hustle, a lesson Malcolm X. learned while shining shoes at the Roseland State Ballroom in Roxbury. If to perform is also to con--as in Lincoln's impersonations of Lincoln, or in Booth's of Booth, or in any piece of theater--then a metatheatrical play is one that represents itself as a hustle. At the end of the day, "thuh man wont want you picking right" (107). The "man" represents a manipulative dealer, an unforgiving society, and a history of racial inequality that goes "all the way back" to slavery and continues into the present. Read either as a naturalistic or a metatheatrical play, Topdog/Underdog insists that "thuh first move is to know that there aint no winning" (106). The conclusion of the play thus subsumes the dichotomy that Lionel Abel introduced almost a half-century ago, when he argued that the self-consciousness of modern playwrights prevented them from writing in a tragic or naturalistic mode; instead, Abel claimed, they thematize their own self-consciousness in the form of a play within a play. Parks's metatheatrical naturalism, or naturalistic metatheater, demands both as it subsumes the distinction between them.
"Thuh perspective from thuh sidelines is thuh perspective of a customer," Lincoln tells his brother (71). But it is also what Parks tells her audience, the customers who occupy the sidelines in this hustle. Part of what defines a hustle is a predetermined outcome despite the appearance of chance. "It may look like you got a chance," Lincoln tells Booth, "but the only time you pick right is when thuh man lets you" (106); so too with the theater, and especially with a play in which the only two characters are named Lincoln and Booth. After winning the Pulitzer for Topdog, Parks commented in an interview that the play works in the "Greek tragedy mode": "Like Oedipus when you go into the theater, you know what's going to happen, and yet you delight in the journey of Oedipus" (Farnsworth). The impact of Parks's ending depends on the audience overlooking the historically determined fates of the play's two characters. The "delight" of the audience requires forgetting rather than remembering, a suspension of belief rather than of disbelief.
The hustle of theater, Parks's play suggests, occurs when it pretends to be something other than a theater of hustle, when it makes us forget, in Calvino's words, that a play "is an operation performed by means of language." That does not imply, however, that theater or literature is purely "self-referential" or aesthetically autonomous. Parks has consistently conceived of her theatrical creations as historical interventions, from such early plays such as The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World (1990) through Venus (1996) and up to 365 Days/365 Plays (2006). Parks explicitly links the theater with this critical function:
A play is a blueprint of an event: a way of creating and rewriting history through the medium of literature. Since history is a recorded or remembered event, theatre, for me, is the perfect place to "make" history--that is, because so much of African-American history has been unrecorded, dismembered, washed out, one of my tasks as a playwright is to--through literature and the special strange relationship between theatre and real-life--locate the ancestral burial ground, dig for bones, find bones, hear the bones sing, write it down. ("Possession" 4)
Topdog enacts the hustle it represents by predicating the audience's delight on an amnesia that results in the whitewashing of history. Parks's re-visions of history differ sharply from Lincoln's neatly packaged recreations:
LINCOLN. People like they historical shit in a certain way. They like it to unfold the way they folded it up. Neatly like a book. Not raggedy and bloody and screaming. (52)
For historical figures to be sanctified, Lincoln implies, they must first be sanitized. In unfolding and unpacking American and African American history, Parks's work, unlike Lincoln's, aspires to be "too real." It is at times raggedy and bloody and screaming, for it "explodes" the binary opposition between "naturalism" and "theatricality." Parks does not so much dramatize history as she uncovers the theater already in history, and the history already in theater, employing naturalistic tactics to conjure, to activate, and to elucidate the theatricality of history.
If Topdog thus represents a turn to naturalism, it turns skeptically, critically, and performatively, for the naturalism of Parks's play reveals that there is no "naturalistic" naturalism, but rather that naturalistic writing, whether in a theater script or a history book, is itself but one more "strategy of effects," which like any hustle, attempts to conceal its operations and manipulations. Topdog/Underdog rejects the false choice between naturalism and metatheater, between historical intervention and aesthetic experimentation.
Abel, Lionel. Metatheatre: A New View of Dramatic Form. New York: Hill & Wang, 1963.
Als, Hilton. "The Show-Woman." New Yorker. 82.35 (30 Oct. 2006): 74-81.
Bigsby, C. W. E. Modern American Drama, 1945-2000. New York: Cambridge UP, 2000.
Brantley, Ben. "Brothers in a Game: Where the Hand is Faster than the Eye." Rev. of Topdog/Underdog, by Suzan-Lori Parks. New York Times 27 July 2001: E3.
--. "Not to Worry, Mr. Lincoln, It's Just a Con Game." Rev. of Topdog/Underdog, by Suzan-Lori Parks. New York Times 8 Apr. 2002: E1.
--. "Of an Erotic Freak Show and the Lesson Therein." Rev. of Venus, by Suzan-Lori Parks. New York Times 3 May 1996: C3.
Brustein, Robert. "A Homeboy Godot." Rev. of Topdog/Underdog, by Suzan-Lori Parks. New Republic 226.18 (13 May 2002): 25-26.
Bush, Jason. "Who's the Man?! Historical Melodrama and the Performance of Masculinity in Topdog/Underdog." Wetmore and Smith-Howard 73-88.
Calvino, Italo. The Uses of Literature. 1980. Trans. Patrick Creagh. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1986.
Chaudhuri, Una. Rev. of Topdog/Underdog, by Suzan-Lori Parks. Theatre Journal 54.2 (May 2002): 289-91.
Craig, Carolyn Casey. Women Pulitzer Playwrights: Biographical Profiles and Analyses of the Plays. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004.
Dietrick, Jon. "Making it 'Real': Money and Mimesis in Suzan-Lori Parks Topdog/Underdog." American Drama 16.1 (Winter 2007): 47-74.
Farnsworth, Elizabeth. Interview with Suzan-Lori Parks. PBS: A NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Transcript. 11 Apr. 2002. Web. 29 May 2007.
Foster, Vema. "Suzan-Lori Parks's Staging of the Lincoln Myth in The America Play and Topdog/Underdog." Journal of American Drama and Theatre 17.3 (Fall 2005): 24-35.
Garrett, Shawn-Marie. "The Possession of Suzan-Lori Parks." American Theatre 17.8 (October 2000): 22-26, 132-34.
Gordon, Michelle. "'Somewhat Like War': The Aesthetics of Segregation, Black Liberation, and A Raisin in the Sun." Representing Segregation. Eds. Brian Norman and Piper Kendrix Williams. Spec. issue of African American Review 42.1 (2008): 121-33.
Hughes, Langston. Selected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Vintage, 1959.
Isherwood, Charles. Rev. of Topdog/Underdog, by Suzan-Lori Parks. Variety 383.11 (7 Apr. 2002): 25.
Jiggetts, Shelby. "Interview with Suzan-Lori Parks." Callaloo 19.2 (Spring 1996): 309-17.
Kakutani, Michiko. "First Novel By a Hand Already Famous." Rev. of Getting Mother's Body, by Suzan-Lori Parks. New York Times 3 June 2003: E1.
Larson, Jennifer. "Folding and Unfolding History: Identity Fabrication in Suzan-Lori Parks's Topdog/Underdog." Reading Contemporary African American Drama: Fragments of History, Fragments of Self. Eds. Trudier Harris and Jennifer Larson. New York: Peter Lang, 2007. 183-202.
Malcolm X, with the assistance of Alex Haley. 1965. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Ballantine, 1992.
Parks, Suzan-Lori. The America Play and Other Works. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1995.
--. The America Play. Parks, America Play 157-99.
--. Betting on the Dust Commander. Parks, America Play 73-90.
--. "from 'Elements of Style.'" Parks, America Play 6-18.
--. Getting Mother's Body. New York: Random House, 2003.
--. "Possession." Parks, America Play 3-5.
--. Topdog/Underdog. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2001.
--. "Tradition and the Individual Talent." Theater 29.2 (Summer 1999): 26-33.
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Shewey, Don. "This Time the Shock Is Her Turn Toward Naturalism." Rev. of Topdog/Underdog, by Suzan-Lori Parks. New York Times 22 July 2001, sec. 2: 4.
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--, and Alycia Smith-Howard, eds. Suzan-Lori Parks: A Casebook. London: Routledge, 2007.
(1.) Parks describes the play as such in a preface dated April 2002. All references to Topdog/Underdog are to the sixth printing (November 2003) of the Theatre Communications Group first edition (December 2001). I am grateful to Brian McGrath, Angela Naimou, and Elizabeth Rivlin for reading and commenting on earlier versions of this essay. I also want to thank Suzan-Lori Parks, whose visit to Clemson University and conversation over coffee--to say nothing of her kindness to my dachshund Grace--further sparked my interest in her work.
(2.) Acts of "borrowing"--at times resembling a gift, at others a theft---constitute a persistent preoccupation in Parks's work. Reviewing Parks's novel Getting Mother's Body (2003), inspired in part by Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, Kakutani states that Parks succeeds "in turning an act of borrowing ... into something quite decisively her own" (E1). Garrett reports Parks's insistence "that the stories of Africa, America, and Europe have been inextricably interwoven through cultural borrowing and exchange" (25).
(3.) Parks discusses the importance of "being watched" to one's self-understanding in a recent interview: "As my husband Paul says, 'we're more of ourselves when we're being watched because, as a species, we don't live alone.' An essential part of human being is performance" (Wetmore 135).
(4.) In a 1999 essay, Parks in effect anticipates these responses: "One year a writer may find a certain style of writing most helpful and inspiring, the next year she will undoubtedly be embracing other styles and forsaking those she once found so necessary.... 'There isn't any such thing as a Suzan-Lori Parks play'" ("Tradition" 26-27, 29).
(5.) Isherwood notes in his review that Parks "is writing in a more naturalistic style here," though he suggests that Parks "is less comfortable in the real world than in the fantastical one of her imagination" (25). Shewey tells a typical version of the story: Parks began writing "plays that defied virtually every aspect of naturalistic theater," and that have at times been criticized for being "obscure, impenetrable, pretentious, even infuriating"; with In the Blood (1999) and then especially with Topdog, however, Parks employs "recognizably naturalistic dialogue" and themes (Shewey 4). Pochoda makes a similar remark: "For a play by Parks it is uncharacteristically conventional--a straightforward story with familiar characters that comes close to observing classical unities." She goes on to note, however, that the play "is not social realism, even flit looks a little bit like it" (36). Chaudhuri similarly notes that "at first glance Topdog/Underdog strikes one as a retreat for Parks, a move backwards both in terms of dramatic history as well as in terms of the poetic imagination that illuminates her earlier plays' (289). Brustein remarks that Topdog continues a line of development, begun with In the Blood, in which Parks's "writing began to get more accessible, if less universal and reverberant, through the use of increasingly naturalistic language and domestic themes" (26). Brantley recognized the beginnings of this development in his review of Parks's play Venus. Claiming that Parks is "known for deliberately cryptic works that defy traditional chronology and dramatic structure," he nevertheless found the play "unusually accessible" ("Erotic" C3). Brantley's review of Topdog traces this development further: "Topdog, its author's most consumer friendly and outright entertaining work to date, should establish an expanded audience for Ms. Parks, who has often been regarded as overly opaque" ("Brothers" E3). The next year Brantley reviewed the play again after its move from The Public Theater to Broadway's Ambassador Theater: "Even five years ago few theatergoers would have selected Ms. Parks as a playwright likely to land on Broadway, much less with such an entertaining wallop. This, after all, is a woman who wrote defiantly nonlinear dramas with intimidating titles ... works that unfolded like allegorical nightmares" ("Not to Worry" E1).
(6.) It is equally important to note that Parks's conflation of what she describes as Hansberry's naturalism and realism is somewhat fast and loose, as Gordon's discussion of Hansberry's concept of a "genuine realism" indicates: "Equally concerned with present truth and future possibility, Hansberry's genuine realism rejects the deterministic impulses of naturalism; her genuine realism relies instead on what she considered an imperative, but in no way naive, idealism" (Gordon 122).
(7.) My thanks to an anonymous reader at African American Review for calling my attention to this connection between Hansberry's and Parks's texts.
(8.) Kevin J. Wetmore, Jr., situates Topdog's many metatheatrical elements within the context of Parks's earlier, more explicitly metatheatrical plays. See Wetmore, "Re-enacting: Metatheatre in thuh Plays of Suzan-Lori Parks," in Wetmore and Smith-Howard 89-105.
(9.) Calvino's remarks on metatheatrical devices are already nearly three decades old--equally contemporary, that is to say, with A Raisin in the Sun, and with Topdog/Underdog. One need only consider, however, the central role such metatheatrical devices play in two highly regarded novels published within a year of Topdog's premiere--Ian McEwan's Atonement (2001) and Orhan Pamuk's Snow (2002)--to see the continued significance of such aesthetic strategies in contemporary literature.
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|Author:||Parks, Suzan-Lori; LeMahieu, Michael|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2012|
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